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Revisiting Penny Dreadful: better than the sum of its parts

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Reading time: 3 minutes

*Spoiler-free*

Horror-drama Penny Dreadful ran for three series between 2014 and 2016. Created by writer, John Logan (Gladiator, Hugo, Alien: Covenant) and produced by Showtime, the Victorian-set mash-up of the supernatural and salacious boasted a talented cast too. Josh Hartnett is the big Hollywood name, but former 007 Timothy Dalton, Eva Green and Rory Kinnear are all excellent.

Showtime doesn’t have the name or reputation in the UK that HBO does, but it has a solid CV making entertaining, if not quite highbrow shows. Homeland, Dexter and the massively fun, Sopranos-lite, Ray Donovan are all Showtime productions. Penny Dreadful fits roughly into the same category of well-presented and put together TV. Albeit in this case with a dark and violent side which won’t be for everyone.

Penny Dreadfuls were shlock literature for the masses, featuring lurid tales of beasts and murderers. This is what the show is loosely based on. Penny Dreadful is the kind of television Aleister Crowley might watch if he was still alive. Let’s be thankful that he isn’t.

First point of note: it’s a bold move making it sound like your show is dreadful in its title, no matter the context. Second point of note: those comics were cheap rip-offs of famous tales (Dracula, Frankenstein, etc.), which technically makes Penny Dreadful derivative of the derivative. Just a thought.

Admittedly, Penny Dreadful is a little hard to engage with at first, the sprawling characters feel slightly disjointed and frankly, it’s a little slow. It plods along almost as if it thinks it’s more mysterious than it is. However, there’s enough intrigue and plenty of nudity and gore to keep one’s attention long enough to see it pick up, which it does. It stays there for the most part.

A little on the initial story set up without giving too much away: Doctor Frankenstein has fatherhood issues with his monster and vice versa. Dorian Gray is shagging and drinking anything and everything with the look of a man who grew bored of it all years ago. Josh Hartnett’s strange American gunslinger, Ethan Chandler and Billie Piper’s sex worker, Brona rotate around Eva Green’s mysterious Vanessa Ives and her search with Sir Malcolm Murray for his daughter Mina.

No prizes for guessing who has hold of Mina.

As the stories tie together, Penny Dreadful picks up and in places, far exceeds the quality a show of its ilk has any right to be. This is thanks in part to the acting and some excellent writing as well as a convincingly constructed environment, which remains steadfastly in England until the third season, which is its weakest.

There’s lots of God-talk, but in that sense, Penny Dreadful panders to both markets – like the characters you can believe in God or not. Neither position should affect your enjoyment. Other things might, but not the God delusion. The debate around the divine is apt for the setting, too. Victorians were obsessed with God and death. Sherlock Holmes writer, Arthur Conan Doyle was hugely into the seance scene. The illicit, sensational fascination with the macabre, mortality and beyond was not simply a guilty pleasure of the working class in Victorian England. It was an everyday obsession, not a subculture.

Not without its wobbles, at times holding the attention less than at others, Penny Dreadful is still mostly a lot of fun. That the three seasons all have a different amount of episodes in them hints that Showtime was never fully convinced, but Penny Dreadful boasts, in places, captivating drama, good action, sympathetic characters and malicious monsters. It all plays with expectations nicely and the score is also rather lovely.

Considering what it attempts to do, wiring legend, fiction and myth together in a contemporary Victorian London, Penny Dreadful should have lived up to its name. It should have been a cheap thrill, throwaway escapism and titillation. What it manages to achieve is far beyond the limits of its origins and it remains a show worth picking up or returning to.

Every aspect of Penny Dreadful’s production combined to be better than the sum of its parts. Like a certain monster.

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